The National Portrait Gallery celebrates 50 years of Watergate with a new exhibition: NPR

The National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in with an exhibit of 25 items featuring figures involved in the scandal.


The 50th anniversary of Watergate is approaching. In June 1972, five men were arrested for breaking into the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate complex, the first stage in one of the worst political scandals in US history. Looking ahead, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC commemorates these landmark events with an exhibit. NPR’s Miranda Mazariegos has more.

MIRANDA MAZARIEGOS, BYLINE: The word Watergate has long been used to refer to cover-ups, burglaries and abuses of power as the 1970s political scandal that brought down President Nixon captured the attention of media, artists, of Hollywood and the general public alike. In this new exhibition, the acting senior historian at the National Portrait Gallery, Kate Clarke Lemay, wanted to approach the well-known story through a different, more visual lens.

KATE CLARKE LEMAY: In my opinion, good art is timeless. So I wanted this show to focus on the close relationship between media and artists and start interpreting that impact on those events.

MAZARIEGOS: The news media exposed the abuse of power and helped the public dissect the crisis as it was unfolding. Time Magazine alone devoted more than 40 of their covers to the scandal, 12 of which are part of the gallery’s exhibit. And the show has a bit of everything. There are photos of the most high-profile figures – President Nixon and White House lawyer John Dean, for example – but also portraits of those whose stories have unfolded on the periphery of the scandal, like Martha Mitchell. , wife of then-Attorney General John Mitchell. Portrait of Martha is a colorful and eye-catching painting by artist Jan de Ruth, originally published in Time Magazine’s November 1970 special, The Wives of Washington.

CLARKE LEMAY: So imagine being a socialite. You know, she was born in Arkansas and she’s featured in Time Magazine. OK, great, except she’s introduced to be a woman. Women’s potential was so limited in the middle of the century.

MAZARIEGOS: So adding the portrait to the collection allowed Clarke Lemay to explore Martha’s story as a woman who was an essential but marginalized part of the scandal. Martha’s closeness to John allowed her to know many of the scandal’s secrets, and she was known for her prying comments to reporters like UPI’s Helen Thomas. But knowing too much had its consequences.

CLARKE LEMAY: She was kidnapped, sedated, drugged. They called her crazy. They used this age-old reference for women as hysterical. So that was something that I really wanted to make sure was the focus of this show, to fix that story, to make sure people knew his story, really appreciated what it was. She was a whistleblower.

MAZARIEGOS: Martha’s husband, John Mitchell, was convicted of conspiring to cover up the break-in. He is represented in the exhibit by Italian-born artist George Giusti, who drew the former attorney general’s face on a bottle of bleach.

CLARKE LEMAY: Mid-century, you know, cartoonists were looking for every possible type of material that would make a statement on their own. And so the humor behind that is probably what Giusti wanted.

MAZARIEGOS: Lemay Clarke says humor is the perfect vehicle for understanding history. the collection therefore contains several cartoons and forms of political parody, such as a statue of President Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, done in the style of Mount Rushmore and a wanted poster with images of all the men involved. in the scandal. When curating the collection, Lemay Clarke thought of the millions of diverse visitors the Portrait Gallery receives each year, primarily those who may not be familiar with those involved in Watergate.

CLARKE LEMAY: I think it’s helpful. Art helps us to understand this complexity a little, but in a simplified way.

MAZARIEGOS: “Watergate: Portraiture And Intrigue” is on view until September 5.

For NPR News, I’m Miranda Mazariegos.

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